The hero of Hanukkah, Judah the Maccabee, and members of the ruling Hasmonean dynasty that his brothers started have been six feet under for more than 2,100 years. The question is: where?
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Evidently it’s not at the site now called the Graves of the Maccabees – to which a huge sign on road 443 near the Israeli town of Modi’in now directs visitors. Those burial places probably belong to Christians and pagans, according to Amit Re'em of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who excavated the site in 2006.
But not far from the graves that persuasive PR has assigned to the indefatigable family of fighters lies another site, called Yohanan Hagardi Ruins. A number of magnificent burial rooms were first discovered here 150 years ago as scholars searched for the magnificent tomb described in I Maccabees and by the Roman-era Jewish historian Josephus.
Back in the day, scholars were intrigued by the Arabic name of this area, El-Midya – which sounds like Modi’in, the Hasmoneans’ home town – and by an old tomb, known as the tomb of Sheikh Gharbawi (where a stone marking the tomb of Mattathias, Judah’s father, was placed years ago), which stood amid the ancient ruins you can still see at the site.
In the 1950s or 1960s, in honor of the connection to Modi'in, the name Gharbawi was transformed (or some would say restored) to the similar-sounding Hagardi ("the weaver"). That was the ancient nickname for Yohanan, elder brother of Judah the Maccabee.
So are these the graves of our fighting forefathers? Maybe.
The initial flurry of activity, mainly by French archaeologists, eventually died down and the Sheikh Gharbawi/Hagardi tombs sank into obscurity, becoming overshadowed by the adjacent cluster of rock-cut tombs the locals called Qubur el-Yahud. Meaning “tombs of the Jews,” that name was just too evocative not to be regarded as the “official” graves of the Maccabees. An annual Hanukkah torch relay race was instituted in 1944 which, despite Yohanan’s rather sedentary nickname, extolled the Hanukkah heroes as strapping physical specimens.
Even before more recent surveys and small-scale digs began, unusually fine ancient tombs could be seen (and still are) at this 6-dunam (1.5-acre) site along with carved building stones, column drums and heaps of ruins. And that’s just scratching the surface. You’ll even spot a military trench from the 1948 War of Independence, when this mountain-gateway region possessed the same strategic value as it did to the Maccabees.
The Antiquities Authority's Re'em recently called the idea that this mysterious site contains the Hasmoneans' actual tombs “wishful thinking.” But he did note that modern scholars do tend to see it as such – or at least as the spot where the grave was marked in antiquity. It is the season of miracles, after all, so we'll take it.
Hagardi Ruins are located three kilometers northwest of modern Modi’in. Follow the signs from Road 443 to the “Graves of the Maccabees"; Hagardi Ruins are about one kilometer up a dirt track, north of that site.